Christianity became established in North Africa during the first centuries of the Christian era.8 Churches were established along much of the North African coast in the areas now known as Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. A particularly strong Christian presence developed in Egypt, with the city of Alexandria emerging as a leading center of Christian thought and life. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most significant Christian leaders and writers of all time, was based in this region.
Much of this Christian presence in Africa was swept away by the Arab invasions of the seventh century. Coptic Christianity survived in Egypt, although as a minority faith. The situation began to change gradually during the later sixteenth century. When Portuguese settlers occupied previously uninhabited islands off the west African coast, such as the Cape Verde Islands, they established Catholicism there. However, such offshore settlements had little impact on the mainland of Africa.
The coming of Protestantism to sub-Saharan Africa, which can be dated from the eighteenth century, was closely linked with the great evangelical awakening in England at this time. Many were appalled at the slave trade, in which British merchants bought slaves from local tribal leaders in Africa before exporting them to the plantations of the American colonies. The conversion of John Newton (1725-1807), a former slave ship captain, to evangelical Protestantism created a growing awareness of the problem. Newton celebrated his conversion by writing one of the world's best-known hymns, "Amazing Grace," which told of his spiritual transformation.9 This same writer also wrote hymns such as "The Negro's Complaint," which spoke of the dignity conferred on all people by God, which slavery could not diminish.
Evangelical Protestants responded to this new concern for Africa in two ways: first, by working for the abolition of slavery, a project especially associated with the English politician William Wilberforce and his circle; and second, by bringing the gospel to this region of the world. These were powerful visions, and they caught the imagination of many in the 1790s. Three major British missionary societies were active in Africa during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the Baptist Missionary Society, founded in 1792 and initially known as the "Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Heathen"; the London Missionary Society, founded in 1795 and initially known as the "Missionary Society"; and the Church Missionary Society, founded in 1799 and originally known as the "Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East." Each of these societies focused on a specific region: the Baptist Missionary Society on the Congo basin, the London Missionary Society on southern Africa (including Madagascar), and the Church Missionary Society on west and east Africa. All of these societies were Protestant as well as strongly evangelical in their outlook. Like John Wesley, they believed passionately in the need for conversion and regeneration and saw the overseas mission field as a priority.
Missionary work in the 1790s led to the establishment of small Christian communities among native tribes, particularly the Khoi. Gradually, surrounding tribes began to convert to Christianity. Here, as in many other situations, the motivation for conversion varied considerably.
Some conversions clearly stemmed from a deep spiritual experience; others reflected a conviction of the truth of the Christian gospel; other conversions might have been rooted in a belief that Christianity would make the benefits of Western civilization more widely available to African culture. This was particularly clear in the case of the Ganda tribe of east Africa, among whom the decision to convert to Christianity (rather than Islam) seems to have been partly influenced by the superiority of British technology and the possibility that such conversion might lead to this technology becoming more widely available to the tribe.
The dominant feature of sub-Saharan Africa in the nineteenth century was the growing presence of colonial powers in the region, some of which had Protestant state churches. Because the forms of Christianity dominant in Belgium, Britain, France, and Germany—all of which established colonies in this region during the period—varied considerably, a considerable diversity of churches became established in Africa. Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Lutheranism were all well established by the end of the century; in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed church had a particularly strong influence among European settlers. A disturbing perception arose in some quarters that Protestantism was merely the religious component of colonial power, a Western import to the region that would not survive any subsequent Western withdrawal.
Perhaps the most celebrated colonial evangelist was David Livingstone (1813-73). Livingstone was convinced of the importance of commerce in relation to the Christianization of Africa. In 1838 he offered his services to the London Missionary Society, declaring his intention to go to Africa "to make an open path for commerce and Christianity." Exploiting the British government's interest in replacing the banned slave trade with more legitimate forms of commerce, Livingstone obtained government backing for an expedition to explore the Zambezi River as a potential gateway to the interior. He believed that the interior would be capable of commercial exploitation, such as the growing of cotton, then greatly in demand by the cotton mills of Lancashire. Although the expedition was a commercial failure, it opened up the interior to missionary activity. Livingstone himself became a role model for many younger British Protestants. A series of addresses he delivered at Cambridge University led to the founding of the university's Mission to Central Africa in i860.
Whereas the London missionary societies primarily sent white evangelists to Africa, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States believed that the best strategy was to send Afro-Americans to the region.10 At least 115 black American missionaries are known to have been present and active in Africa during the period 1875 to 1899. Following the establishment of the west African republic of Liberia (1847) as a refuge for former slaves, black Protestant missionaries and church-builders went to the region, seeing their work partly as evangelism and partly as nation-building. Their work generated some friction with white missionaries in this area; nevertheless, the presence of black missionaries in Liberia was an important staging post on the road to the indigenization of mission.
Yet the rise of Protestantism caused tensions to arise within traditional African societies. An excellent example of this can be seen in the boarding school for girls established in Madagascar in 1872 by Lutherans from the Norwegian Missionary Society.11 At that time, Christianity was becoming increasingly influential in the region. Although Madagascar became a French protectorate in 1885, the Norwegians, in part because their nation was not a colonial power, enjoyed a particular advantage in the region. The difficulty was that the Norwegian women missionaries brought contemporary Norwegian notions of domestic life to a context in which they were totally alien, thus complicating—if not compromising—their missionary agenda.
A further issue concerned marriage customs. Western Protestantism was strongly monogamist; African culture had long recognized the merits of polygamy. Increasingly, the European Christian insistence upon a man having only one wife was seen as a Western import that had no place in traditional African society. The United African Methodist Church, an indigenous church that recognized polygamy, traces its origins back to a 1917 meeting of the Methodist church in Lagos, Nigeria, at which a large group of leading laypeople were debarred from the church on account of their practice of polygamy. They responded by forming their own Methodist church, which adopted native African values frowned on by the European missionaries.
By the year 1900, Protestantism had been firmly established in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But there were major questions. Was its presence in the region simply a consequence of Western colonial authority? Would it disappear in the future, along with other expressions of colonialism? Similarly, the forms of Protestantism established in the region bore the unmistakable hallmarks of their predominantly European origins. The services and structures of the "Church of the Province of South Africa"—one of two Anglican organizations in the region— looked remarkably like those of British Anglicanism.12 How would such obvious importations or transplants survive in such a different cultural context? And what would happen when the British had to go home? Could these planted churches survive without their colonial patrons?
Much the same questions were raised by Protestant attempts to expand in Asia, to which we now turn.
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